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Russia Probes to Bolster its Authority in Central Asia

by Sergei Blagov 28 March 2002 MOSCOW, 27 March (EurasiaNet)--After being thrown on the geopolitical defensive by post 11 September developments in Central Asia, including the establishment of US bases, Russia is now probing for ways to reassert its regional influence. As Russian strategic planners consider their options, they appear to be more concerned by the potential for growth of Chinese influence in Central Asia than by the US military and economic presence.

The US-led anti-terrorism campaign produced upheaval in Central Asia's geopolitical equation. The sudden rise of United States' profile led to a drastic reduction of China's role in regional political and economic developments, said Alexei Voskressenski, head of Chinese Studies Center at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow. The arrival of US forces also eroded Russia's long-standing ties to Central Asian states.

Russia's diminished Central Asia role initially prompted bitter complaints from Moscow's political establishment. Many critics believed President Vladimir Putin's policies towards Washington were overly conciliatory. However, such criticism appears to be abating, and Russian planners now seem to be focusing on the future.

Currently, Russian officials are keen to sound optimistic as concerns subside that Central Asia's geopolitical balance has been permanently altered. Some regional analysts had suggested that the arrival of US troops would render a Russian-led initiative - the Collective Security Treaty - irrelevant. Now, fears of a US permanent military presence in Central Asia "are not exactly justified," according to Valery Nikolayenko, a Russian general and the secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty (CST).

On 20 March, Nikolayenko told the journalists in Moscow that the CST viewed itself as an "integral part of European and Asian security" system. He claimed that China's and India's policies are more or less in line with the CST's course of action.

The CST includes six post-Soviet nations -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Armenia. Prior to 11 September, CST member states were gearing up to assume a leading role for Central Asian security.

Many Russian officials viewed the rapid deployment of the US-led anti-terrorism coalition forces in Central Asian states as a snub of the CST. In his talk with journalists, Nikolayenko conceded that there had been no multilateral consultations prior to the arrival of US troops in Central Asia, even though Putin had had telephone talks with Central Asian leaders.

Nikolayenko and others are now working to reestablish the CST's stature. In an effort to boost post-Soviet military ties, Nikolayenko announced that in 2002 the CST plans a series of military maneuvers. In April, the CST will hold exercises dubbed "South-Anti-Terror" involving Kyrgyz and Tajik security forces. Also in April, eight CIS states - including all six CST states along with Ukraine and Uzbekistan - will hold a joint training of air defense commanders. In May, military maneuvers are schedule to be held near Moscow.

Helping to soothe Russian strategic concerns, the Kremlin has received reassurances from US officials about Washington's regional intentions. On 20 March General Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, held talks with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in Moscow and hailed Russia for its cooperation in the anti-terrorist campaign. Franks stressed that the United States was not competing with Russia in Central Asia. After his talks with Franks, Ivanov noted "positive development of relations" between Russian and US defense ministries.

For Russian planners, the Chinese factor is now the most important unknown in the continuing great game. "It remains to be seen what China's response is going to be," argues Voskressenski. "China has unique tools of influence in Central Asia."

Russia continues to engage China. On 20 March, Putin held telephone talks with Chinese President Jiang Zemin to discuss regional ties and institutions, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO.

In addition, 21 March Russia's deputy foreign minister Georgy Mamedov met up with Chinese envoy Hu Xiaodi in Geneva on 21 March to brief the latter on talks between Russia and the US on strategic arms cuts. According to RIA, Russian and Chinese diplomats exchanged views on "unsatisfactory non-proliferation and disarmament situation following unilateral moves, such as US withdrawal from ABM treaty."

The CST's Nikolayenko traveled to China earlier in March for meetings with high-ranking Chinese officials, including first deputy foreign minister Li Zhaxin and China's Shanghai Cooperation Organization coordinator Liu Guchang. According to Nikolayenko, the Chinese officials "voiced concern over the Western military presence" in Central Asia and expressed interest in boosting ties with the CST.

Also in early March, the Chinese army's deputy chief of staff, Sun Guankai, visited Kazakhstan to meet Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbayev. On 18 March, the Chinese envoy announced a $3 million military aid package for the Kazakhstani army. Beijing evidently remains interested in raising its regional strategic profile.

Against the backdrop of Chinese efforts to encroach on what Moscow perceives as its traditional sphere of influence, Russian officials are intent on remaining on good terms with those Central Asian nations where Western forces are now stationed. On 20 March, Putin congratulated Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Kyrgyz leader Askar Akayev on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations with these Central Asian nations. There is a "great potential of cooperation" between Russia and Uzbekistan, Putin wrote to Karimov.

However, some Russian politicians continue to oppose Putin's policies. On 21 March, the State Duma's International Relations Committee said it would not recommend ratification of a debt deal between Russia and Kyrgyzstan, signed on 6 July 2001. The committee was disinclined to write off Kyrgyz debt, and some members opposed wording in the agreement that described Kyrgyzstan as "one of the CIS's poorest nations," deputy chairman Sergei Shishkarev said 21 March.

Kyrgyzstan stands to receive plentiful income from its US basing agreements, Shishkarev pointed out, adding that Bishkek should use some of the windfall to repay the $133 million debt owed to Moscow. Kyrgyzstan, which is recovering from unprecedented violent riots in mid March has yet to respond to Shishkarev's comments.

Meanwhile, Russia's trusted ally in Central Asia, Tajikistan, has indicated an intention to distance itself from Moscow. For instance, on 20 March Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov stated that Tajik remained the country's official language, while "studies of foreign languages such as Russian and English" should be encouraged. He also lashed out at "continued attempts by foreign media and researchers to sustain Tajikistan's image as an unstable state."

Some experts suggest that Russian policy makers may now try to counter a perceived US strategic "overstretch" by exploiting contradictions in US-Chinese relations. "Moscow now can play on differences between Washington and Beijing - in Central Asia or elsewhere," Voskressenski said.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.
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